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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

The UAE is leading the Arab renaissance in space exploration

Emirati would-be astronomer is proof of the enthusiasm and drive of this nation's people

Emirati astronomer Thabet Al Qaissieh is collaborating with NYUAD on black holes at his personal observatory called Al Sadeem Observatory.  Antonie Robertson / The National
Emirati astronomer Thabet Al Qaissieh is collaborating with NYUAD on black holes at his personal observatory called Al Sadeem Observatory.  Antonie Robertson / The National

Ever since they were first identified in the 1960s, black holes have been a source of endless fascination, as crucial to the conundrum of quantum gravity as the meaning of life. With such a strong gravitational pull that even light cannot escape them and caused by the collapse of stars, they are as elusive as they are riveting. Now the possible discovery of a black hole the size of Abu Dhabi, existing 10,000 light years from Earth, has sparked a frenzy of excitement among physicists and amateur stargazers alike. There is a "90 per cent certainty" of its existence but the task of confirmation is ongoing. Powerful telescopes in different parts of the world are being deployed but crucial data is coming from an unexpected source: an observatory set up by an amateur Emirati astronomer. Some of the world’s leading experts are collaborating with Thabet Al Qaissieh to determine if the X-ray transient Maxi J1820 system, first spotted from a telescope on the International Space Station, contains a black hole.

The process places an Emirati at the centre of a journey towards a major new finding – this nation’s contribution, in Mr Al Qaissieh’s words, “to space discovery”. The sense of wonder that first triggered his interest in astronomy is shared by the country. A chance meeting with a Filipino space enthusiast, however, led Mr Al Qaissieh to do more than just acquire a telescope. In 2016, he opened an observatory – Al Sadeem, or the nebula in Arabic – that has since drawn large crowds of space enthusiasts. He was driven in part by the desire to undo the belief that “Arabs or Muslims are anti-science”.

This region, after all, was home to pioneering scholars of astronomy such as the 9th century researcher Ahmad Al Farghani, who calculated distances between the Earth and heavenly objects and Jabir ibn Aflah, who explained the movement of celestial objects in the 12th century. The UAE is now leading the Arab renaissance in space exploration. A stream of Emirati professionals have graduated from a training scheme designed to support the long-term aspirations of this country in space. In 2021 the UAE’s Mission to Mars is set to be the first Arab probe to land on the red planet. And last year the UAE announced an ambitious plan to establish a human colony on Mars by 2117. What Mr Al Qaissieh has done with the Al Sadeem observatory provides ample evidence that the bold vision of this nation’s leaders is complemented by the enthusiasm and drive of its citizens.